The Gulf of Mexico has been described as a washing machine with currents going every which way making crossing it challenging. I myself have used this description of its sea state when I have crossed the gulf but after what I think was a well planned trip from Marathon Florida to Port Aransas Texas I question if trips across the gulf would go a lot easier with just a little thought put into planning the crossing.
The problem with the Gulf of Mexico is that the Gulf Stream flows into then out of the gulf and at the same time the majority of rivers in the United States discharge into it. All of this happens in this body of water that is surrounded by land on more than three sides with depths as deep as 12000 feet, just little over two miles. It is easy to see how its seas can get quiet confused. The Gulf Stream comes up from the Yucatan Channel and into the Gulf of Mexico and then it hooks to the east and then back down and around the Florida Keys then up the east coast of Florida. The point in the gulf where the stream hooks varies as every now and then it breaks off into a loop that spins off into the western gulf towards Texas. Some times there could be several of these spinning eddies.
I recently got the chance to put my navigating skills to use as I helped Bruce Swart and his friend Chuck bring Bruce and his wife Tammy’s new sailboat across the Gulf to Texas. There were no working chart plotters on the boat therefore we would have to hand chart our trip from Fort Lauderdale down the east coast of Florida and then to Texas. Chuck the Skipper, preferred taking a more northern route across the gulf by sailing up the west coast of Florida and jumping off closer to Tampa Bay for the trip to Port Aransas. It was my opinion that since we were going thru the keys we should jump off some where in the Keys thus taking a more southern route. The northern route keeps the crew closer to civilization with northern gulf ports being only a days sail away, not to mention the abundance of oilfield activity that can be found off shore of Louisiana. My southern route would be considerably shorter and with the exception of an occasional ship, little contact with human life for the majority of the trip.
One of the best things about Chuck, besides his cooking was his being open to discussion. I met the boat in Fort Lauderdale where the plan was to sail down the east coast of Florida and around Key West before sailing north to Tampa. The first discussion we had was my suggestion that we save a day or so by cutting through Boot Key and navigation thru the Florida Bay. Chuck felt that we could not do this without going aground but, later, as we approached Boot Key the thought of refueling and getting a good nights rest then feeling our way across the Florida Bay became more attractive to him. “We will just have to plan on going aground several times, but we will give it a try” was his call. I have made the short cut thru Boot Key on a boat that drew over 6 foot without trouble and felt there would be no problem.
Chuck is also a guy who sizes people up along the way so that he can get a maximum benefit out of his meeting them. While fueling the boat just outside of Marathon he put the charm on a lady working the dock and convinced her to allow us to stay the night free of charge. Actually I do believe there was a tip involved when Bruce paid for the fuel. After a hamburger at Burdines a local hangout and a good nights rest we left bright and early.
The sun had just come up and it was time to get underway. So I grabbed a wrench laid it across the contacts to the starter solenoid and just as quick as the sparks flew across the wrench the diesel was running. (Bruce will have to fix this when we get back) After clearing the bridge at Moser Channel we started our course plotting. Working as a team the three of us made our way across the Florida Bay. I did the charting, Bruce was at the helm and Chuck watched for markers. Water depths were around 8 or 9 feet for most of the day and we crossed the bay without incidence. As we were feeling our way across I waited for Chuck to decide whether we would head north to Tampa or warm up to my idea of going straight across.
Before we left Boot Key I asked Chuck if he had any interest in looking at current NOAA Gulf Stream data I had on my lap top. We could aim for a spot in the down bound current where the current was the weakest and then change course to hit the up bound current in a spot to give us the best benefit from it. From there we needed to dodge a large eddy about 90 miles further west by heading north west.
After clearing the Florida Bay the decision was made and we were headed towards the Gulf Stream. I have to admit that I was a little worried that I might not have made accurate prediction but what the heck, we are in the Gulf of Mexico, if we head west we will hit land somewhere. As expected the winds were light out of the southeast and we motor sailed the rest of the day and except for a few hours the entire trip. “Something is not right with this picture” Bruce commented in reference to the fact we were not shutting off the motor and sailing. “Don’t think of this as a sailing trip but rather a delivery” was my response. We had about 900 miles to go and I find the best way to do them is by getting them done.
If you plan to make off shore passages one of the most useful tools you can have is a high frequency radio also referred to as a single sideband radio. Before leaving the dock in Fort Lauderdale I looked into fixing the ships HF radio. At first glance I assumed it was non repairable because the case had been wet as evidence of the corrosion on it. Nothing would happen when it was turned on and I put two and two together and told Bruce it probable was bad. Since I am the kind of person who doesn’t like to assume anything, as I laid in bed that night, I decided that I would take the radio apart in the morning. Bruce and Chuck were going to a Cuban restaurant for breakfast with a friend but I decided to stay behind and play with the radio. After taking it apart I discovered that it looked good inside. I checked a couple of fuses and traced some wiring and soon it would turn on. Later Chuck went up the backstay and re attached the antenna and a test found that it worked but poorly. As we were underway I continued to try to get it to work better. I found ground wires hanging loose from the keel bolts so I reattached them and insured the radio had a good ground plane. Un fortunately as much as I traced the wires from the radio to the tuner I did not notice that the antenna wire was not only loose at the backstay but behind the tuner also. As I touched the loose wire to the tuner the radio came alive. As I looked back at things I found wrong I think the previous owner did not know all of this was unhooked. In 2007 the owner had a new mast installed and none of the grounds were hooked back up nor was the antenna and he cruised Europe that way, puzzled as to why his radio did not work.
We were underway on my southern route and Bruce felt better knowing that we could talk to the rest of the world and get weather reports. In the evenings I would check in to the Maritime Net on a frequency of 14300. Some days I was lucky enough to talk to my wife Kerry who tried to listen in from our trawler in Corpus Christi Texas. What a treat it was that after I check in to the net I heard; kilo foxtrot five kilo November sierra in her soft voice. She was checking in to the net letting me know she was there.
Along with talking to my wife I was also able to follow a friend of mine who was finishing a single handed gulf crossing from Texas to Florida. He had been caught in a 30 to 50 mile per hour blow with seas around 20 feet a few days earlier and had lost contact with a buddy boat he was with. My wife was able to confirm to him that the other boat was ok as she was following that boats Spot locator.
Perhaps the biggest advantage of having the HF radio was the ability to get weather forecast. Every day I would tune in a frequency of 13.089 at noon and record the forecast from NOAA. The trick here is to use a voice recorder and record the weather that is pertinent to you. It takes a little getting use to as they give the weather for areas defined by latitude and longitude. Using Velcro to attach the recorder to the radio comes in handy for this. After recording the weather for the area that I am in and the areas surrounding me I play it back repeatedly until I have it written down. For this trip I would bring the recorder, the written forecast and a small hurricane map I had to Chuck and allow him to study the forecast. He was in charge after all.
I thought about what would have been going through our minds if we did not do take these steps to plan where we would hit the gulf stream and get weather updates. When we were crossing the stream the seas were steep. Cloud cover was heavy, most likely the result of the temperature differences in the water. Would we have made a foolish course change that probably would have us bucking the stream head on? But that did not happen and we made good time as a result of our planning. Lastly, the big advantage of the southern route was being away from most traffic and the hundreds of platforms off of the coast of Louisiana. The boats radar was not working properly which would have made sailing at night amongst the platforms dicey. except for a few ships and an occasional deep water drilling rig that were lit up like cities we were by ourselves.